The film has been selected for the Best Foreign Language Oscar at the 85th Academy Awards, in Hollywood. “The story of a city… It is simply Nairobi”.
In Kiambu, a small town in Central Province, Kenya, life is all about farming and not much else. 19-year old Mwas tries to convince a group of tough guys to buy his bootleg DVDs, while a truck is passing by, advertising a theatre play in the centre of this small town. Immediately intrigued, he follows the truck. The actors in the theatre group fascinate Mwas, so he goes backstage to meet the manager, Jose.
Jose tells him he can become an actor with the group for a small agency fee, provided that he moves to Nairobi. Mwas, without his parents’ consent, decides to go to Nairobi to fulfil his dream of being an actor.
A new life begins for him as he embarks on his journey, filled with hope and uncertainties. Arriving in Nairobi, he quickly learns why the city is nicknamed Nairobbery: he is attacked by a group of muggers and loses all his belongings.
Completely lost, Mwas wanders through the big city with its skyscrapers. He has hardly started enjoying the fact he is finally in Nairobi, when a group of street hawkers, running away from the city council, come towards him. Confused as whether to run or stay put, he gets mistaken for one of the hawkers and finds himself in prison.
Having nothing in his pockets to give Oti, the toughest young crook in the jail, Mwas is punished by being forced to clean the repulsive prison toilets. But Mwas takes on this job with an unusual eagerness, which earns him Oti’s admiration. Oti gives Mwas some advice: when he gets out, he should go and find Dingo who runs the streets in Gaza, an area of downtown Nairobi. Dingo would find him work. Mwas finds Dingo, who gets him a job as a dishwasher. But when Oti gets out, he introduces Mwas to his life in Nairobi by taking him to a local brothel, where Mwas meets Oti’s girlfriend, the prostitute Amina, and falls in love with her. Oti offers Mwas another job.
He learns how to survive in this unforgiving city as a member of Oti’s gang. Still intent on being an actor, he tries to find Jose, the manager who promised him a career in acting. Although Jose’s offer was not for real, Mwas gets a role at the popular Phoenix Theatre where he plays a society thief, and none of his fellow actors realise who Mwas is during the day. Mwas is torn between his life as an actor and his life as a gang member. However he learns too late what the consequences of being a criminal are, as he sees the only people who gave him a home in Nairobi pay the ultimate price. The same day he is due on stage at the Phoenix Theatre to give the performance of his life.
Competitive on a global platform
“Nairobi Half Life” has been submitted as a candidate for an Oscar award for Best Foreign Language Film. It is the first time Kenya has submitted a candidate, the US Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced. Directed by David “Tosh” Gitonga, the film will compete with those from 70 other countries for the five final nominations. Comments in the local motion picture industry were enthusiastic: “It is clear from this film that the Kenya Film Industry has the capacity to make movies that can compete on a global platform”, the Kenya Oscars Selection Committee said, in submitting “Nairobi Half Life” to the Academy.
The list of nominees will be announced in the month of January, with the Oscar to be awarded at a Hollywood ceremony on 24 February. South Africa is the only other sub-Saharan country to have offered a film for the Academy’s consideration in this year’s foreign language category.
“Nairobi Half Life” has yet to be screened in the United States, but it will be made available for viewing by Academy judges.
The film was also screened at the Durban Film Festival in South Africa last July, before its Nairobi premiere on 30 August 2012. In Durban, “Nairobi Half Life” star Joseph Wairimu, won the Best Actor award.
Film director Tosh Gitonga said: “‘Nairobi Half Life’ is making waves on the international scene because it is authentic”. And he added: “Indeed, while strangers to the East African region would view ‘Nairobi Half Life’ as they would any other Hollywood thriller on violence, sex and crime, Kenyans love it because they can identify with the plot and characters”. ‘Nairobi Half Life’, as the director explained “is the story of a city. We did not exaggerate. It is not about a positive or negative view. It is simply Nairobi”. The film portrays a grim picture of Kenya’s capital city, but Gitonga adds that “there is hope yet”.